1. Opinion

Editorial: An assault on open government

Published Mar. 8, 2019

Dark clouds have formed over Florida's long-standing commitment to government-in-the-sunshine. Routine crime information is being kept secret by some police departments. Search efforts for new university presidents are willfully ignoring public records laws. Local governments are turning their backs on public speakers. It's time to ring the alarm bells during Sunshine Week, an annual event highlighting the importance of open government in democracy.

The most dangerous threat to openness involves a pinched reading of a new constitutional amendment by the Tampa Police Department and some other law enforcement agencies around the state. Amendment 6 was approved by voters and included unrelated issues such as raising the mandatory retirement age for judges and unnecessary additional protections for crime victims. What few noticed is a sentence not included in the ballot title or ballot summary that says every crime victim has "the right to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family...''

Now the Tampa Police Department is among those departments that have stopped releasing information about any crime that previously has been public record -- including the crime victim's name, date of birth and address. Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan acknowledges "it's a conservative approach'' and indicated to the Times editorial board he would welcome clarity from the courts. That may be the best hope for a return to openness. In the meantime it is harder for residents to inform themselves about crime trends that could affect their neighborhoods, and it is harder for the media to hold law enforcement accountable.

Other public institutions and local governments are blatantly circumventing long-standing laws requiring openness. The University of South Florida is unrepentant about scheming with its search firm to evade complying with public records requests regarding the search for a new university president. That information apparently is being held by the private search firm, but those records still should be public.

Elsewhere, the Hillsborough School Board is demeaning the public by moving the public comment time out of the televised portion of its meeting. The St. Petersburg Housing Authority tried to charge one of its own board members for public records, an unheard of attempt to avoid accountability. It also disrespected sunshine laws by turning off an audio recorder during a public meeting to discuss the job performance of its CEO. Such disregard for public records and open meetings is all too common in local governments throughout Florida, and it undermines the ability of Floridians to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable.

Of course, the Florida Legislature annually looks at carving out more exemptions to public records. One bill, SB 186, would keep secret any photos or recordings that record the killing of a victim of mass violence without a court order making them public. That would make it more difficult to hold law enforcement or others accountable in mass shootings like those at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando or at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Another bill, SB 248, would broaden a reasonable public records exemption for home addresses for law enforcement officers and others so wide it could be impossible to do property records searches in real estate transactions. Another bill, HB 1201, would broaden an existing public records exemption for photos and videos of autopsies to include the written autopsy report itself for 10 days after the report is completed. That would make it more difficult to hold law enforcement and medical examiners accountable in cases of suspicious deaths.

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Yet this spring, the Legislature is not even the biggest threat to open government. The biggest threat comes from local law enforcement agencies and local governments that are ignoring the intent of state law and the Florida Constitution. Floridians accustomed to government-in-the-sunshine should object.


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